Thursday, 4 June 2020
Covid-19 (Justice and Equality): Statements
I very much welcome the opportunity to address the House again on issues arising from the Covid-19 pandemic. Two weeks ago, only a few short days after I last spoke in the House about Covid-19, I attended a ceremony at Dublin Castle to mark the annual Garda Memorial Day, which commemorates gardaí who have lost their lives in the service of the State. It would be fitting at the outset of our debate to put on record some of my remarks from that occasion. As I said then, I take tremendous pride in the everyday work of the more than 14,700 women and men now serving as gardaí in communities all across the State. There are now more gardaí than at any time in the history of the organisation. In my three years as Minister, I have had the privilege of working in close contact with the membership of An Garda Síochána as well as others in front-line roles in the emergency services. I admire hugely the bravery of gardaí and their commitment to public service of the State. I also admire their connection with the people.
I am sure the House has been looking at the events unfolding in America with as much horror as I have. The death of George Floyd was a tragedy. Its aftermath has been horrific and very difficult for decent law enforcement officers across the United States of America. As we sympathise with the family and friends of Mr. Floyd and watch the subsequent unrest, we should all take note of how unreal it seems to us in Ireland and how far the situation appears from our own reality, in large part, I would contend, because of the close relationship the people have with An Garda Síochána and their local gardaí. At times of crisis we are protected by the largely unarmed women and men of An Garda Síochána. They work to shield us all from harm. They connect our communities. Often they are also the ones to break difficult news. They support us in moments of intense grief. It is that commitment to family, community and country that defines An Garda Síochána at its very best, which brings us to the heart of the topic we are to discuss this evening, community policing.
Community engagement has been a feature of An Garda Síochána since its inception as an unarmed service almost 100 years ago.
Yet, I imagine there are many different perspectives on what exactly community policing is and what it means in operational terms. The House will be aware that in September 2018 the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland published its report outlining a vision and roadmap for strengthening An Garda Síochána and the broader national framework for policing, community safety and security. The report followed extensive consultations with communities and a wide range of stakeholders over 15 months.
Indeed, the Government endorsed the commission's report. A four-year implementation plan, A Policing Service for the Future, is now progressing. The report of the commission and its implementation plan present the vision of a modern and effective police service with human rights as its foundation and community safety at its heart. The commission envisaged a new model of policing where community policing is the backbone of all policing activities. In other words, all gardaí working at a local level should see their overarching collective function as working together to solve problems impacting community safety in the local area.
Yet, as the commission's report also stated, policing is not only about detecting and investigating crime, crucial though this function is. It is also about preventing harm to those who are vulnerable and this important responsibility is not the responsibility of An Garda Síochána alone. This is why, in addition to setting out a new governance and oversight framework for An Garda Síochána, the policing and community safety Bill, which is currently being drafted, will redefine policing to include prevention of harm, in particular to those who are vulnerable. It will place an obligation on relevant State agencies to co-operate with the Garda on community safety matters. Work is well advanced.
Yet, even ahead of the development of community engagement and these new structures and approaches, I call on Deputies to agree that a striking feature of the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the extent to which gardaí have stepped up with community outreach and engagement throughout the country. In addition to the critical role that gardaí are playing in supporting public health restrictions as well as regular policing operations, Covid-19 has reinforced the manner in which proactive community engagement can improve the condition of people's lives. In all our communities, urban and rural, Garda members are reaching out to those who are most vulnerable, alone, fearful and afraid. Gardaí are encouraging anyone who needs help to call the local station and seek assistance, which will be forthcoming. In recent weeks and in the extraordinary circumstances in which we find ourselves I have heard of Garda members calling to check on people who are cocooning, dropping off shopping and dealing with prescriptions and dropping them to people in isolated areas. They are serving as a lifeline by delivering other necessary equipment or materials where needed, for example, personal protective equipment for use by home carers in Letterkenny and care packages to elderly members of the public cocooning in Blanchardstown. Up and down the country they are saving humans and wildlife in danger, from ducklings in Dublin to lambs and foals and, in one remarkable event in April, rescuing a beached dolphin in Donegal. In this way, the long-standing community ethos of An Garda Síochána has been brought even more to the fore. I believe it is true to say that in many cases the public have never felt as close to their local gardaí as in recent times.
It is notable that a number of recent public surveys by external bodies have found strong support and satisfaction for how An Garda Síochána has operated during the crisis. These high levels of public support and satisfaction with gardaí can only be helpful as we move gradually towards a full reopening of society.
As Deputies will be aware, in addition to weekly reports by the Commissioner, the Policing Authority is, at my request, assessing and reporting regularly on Garda action in the context of Covid-19. I requested these reports in the interests of transparency and public confidence and to ensure the new and temporary Garda powers were implemented in a proportionate and human rights-compliant manner. The authority's most recent report specifically addresses community engagement and documents the overwhelmingly positive reaction at community level to the breadth and depth of Garda engagement. I understand that these and related matters will be explored further in the next report of the authority, which I will receive in the coming days. I appreciate the Policing Authority's detailed engagement with a range of stakeholders in this task and I thank the authority for this helpful analysis.
Combating domestic abuse and sexual violence remains a priority during the pandemic. Deputies will be aware that, at an early stage, the Garda established a proactive initiative in this regard, Operation Faoisimh. The first phase of the operation involved gardaí making proactive contact with victims who had reported domestic abuse in the past and actively following up on that. The second phase has now begun, and I understand from the Commissioner that it targets perpetrators. The operation builds on other victim-centric approaches that the Garda is implementing, including the roll-out of the divisional protection services units. I understand that 16 of these have been established across 15 divisions. The roll-out is continuing and will be completed shortly. These proactive measures are most welcome. Sadly, they are all too necessary. The Garda indicates that there has been a 25% increase in reporting of domestic abuse incidents. However, I want the message to go clearly out to the women and men who suffer these dreadful crimes that supports and services are available despite the pandemic and that the civil and criminal justice system will continue to prioritise their support and safety.
I hope that I have, by means of my remarks, provided a brief update on community policing in the context of Covid-19 and a flavour of the impact the new approaches and emphasis can have. I see a real sense of purpose in Garda members as they serve and protect us in these unprecedented times. I am conscious also of the sacrifices often made by the families of gardaí. It is not easy knowing that a loved one's working day can expose him or her to danger on a continuous basis. The reality is that the actions of the Garda during these difficult days are creating a new and positive entry in the proud history of the service. When we have emerged from this pandemic, which we will, and had the chance to grieve fully for those who have been lost, I hope that we will also have the opportunity to reflect on what lessons and positive innovations, including in policing, we can draw from this period and take with us into the post-Covid world.
Those of us who are interested in community policing should watch carefully what is happening in the US. Recent events there reveal what occurs when there is a toxic relationship between a certain section of a community and its police officers. Not only have the brutal killing of Mr. George Floyd and the consequent protests underlined the toxicity of the relationship that exists between certain groups in the US and its police officers, they have also have underlined the importance of having a police force that serves with the support and co-operation of the public that it polices. Regrettably, large numbers among the black community in the US look upon police officers as being members of an organisation that is committed to discriminating against and oppressing them. That is not the case with the majority of police officers, but it is significant nonetheless.
Fortunately, we in Ireland do not have such a toxic relationship between An Garda Síochána and the members of the community that it polices. When one speaks to communities about policing in their areas, be it in the flats of the inner city or in rural Ireland, one of the noticeable features is that they want to see more gardaí on the ground and in their communities. The reason for that is because the Garda is viewed as a community police force that provides community policing. It is not viewed in the same way as a police force in the US, that is, as a law enforcement agency.
I am conscious that we as policymakers need to be constantly vigilant about what is happening in policing in this country. As we know, the Garda can change and public attitudes to the Garda can change. As our society changes, it is important that the Garda change with it. If the Garda is to achieve success in community policing as our society becomes more diverse, it is important that it reflect that diversity. This is why it is important that the Garda continue to recruit from different races and all socio-economic backgrounds. Diversity in Ireland is happening and it should also happen within the Garda.
As policymakers we must ensure that gardaí continue to police by placing the principles of equality, diversity and respect at the forefront of their work. Of course, the problems in the United States go far beyond the toxicity of the relationship between certain black communities and certain police officers. The history of that country is overshadowed by issues such as slavery, segregation and racism, issues that are too complex to go into here. It is fair to say that people who observed the civil rights movement in the US or the great legislative achievements of President Lyndon Johnson, as President and as a Senator, will be extremely disappointed at the fact that in the 21st century, the progress of black people in America is not where it should be.
As I said at the outset, we need to be conscious of racism in this country. We must also be conscious that as a country, we are hugely impacted by events that happen in neighbouring countries. We have a very large country to our west and another to our east and we must be extremely careful that we do not allow the polarisation of politics that has occurred in the United States and the United Kingdom and regrettably, that has existed in Northern Ireland for decades, to happen in this country. The purpose of polarisation in politics is to divide people into different antagonistic groups through the presentation to them of the idea that their issues can only be resolved by affiliation to one political group. What polarisation seeks to do is to convince people not to look at the substance of a political issue but to just affiliate themselves with a particular group. It further holds that anyone outside that group is antagonistic to their interests and should be opposed. I hope we do not see that fragmentation of politics happening in Ireland. As politicians, we all have a responsibility to ensure we confront racism where it exists in Ireland, and it does exist. We also need to ensure we do not facilitate polarisation because one of the extremely negative consequences of polarisation is that it allows the extremes to flourish and on the extremes are the racists.
For years to come we will reference the Covid-19 era and reflect on how it has changed so much in our everyday lives. An unexpected consequence of the lockdown is that for the first time in many years, we have been able to focus on the quality and number of garda personnel that should be on the ground and on patrol in rural Ireland. Trainees from Templemore were dispatched nationwide in an effort to support and supplement the policing effort in the face of the Covid-19 challenge. As part of that process, eight probationary officers were assigned to County Longford and for local policing, this was transformative. In Longford Garda station, for example, station management was able to move from a traditional six ten-hour shift roster to a much more effective and productive four 12-hour shift roster.
Our good friends in the media are fixated on gangland crime, often glorifying the protagonists. Yet, when the same excesses and savagery are visited on rural towns like Longford, we as a community are pilloried and scorned. As a town and county, Longford has been wracked by feuding over the past year, not unlike Drogheda in County Louth. Unlike Drogheda, however, we did not get the immediate and rapid response that the north east got in terms of resources and numbers of garda personnel. It is a sore point but we also did not get a high-profile visit from the senior echelons of Garda management at the time. Notwithstanding all those challenges, however, one of the hardest working Garda units in the country now has as many as 70 feuding-related court cases due to come before the local courts in County Longford. It is an outstanding achievement and piece of police work but that difficult process will, unfortunately, eat up Garda time and resources over the coming months. As a starting point, therefore, I urge the Minister to ensure the number of garda personnel in County Longford is augmented with eight new officers when the next batch of graduates from Templemore is allocated. We need to see a recruitment drive following on from that too.
Commentators tell us that Covid-19 is going to transform how and where we live. Obviously key issues will be transport and access to services but if one asks small business owners, small farmers or beleaguered pensioners in County Longford, they will tell one that the foremost issue is crime prevention and the need and desire to live at peace in their own community.
One of the strongest tools the State has in building strong communities is community policing. We only have to look to the US to see the disastrous consequences when the relationship between the police and communities breaks down. One issue that constantly undermines community policing in my constituency and that has become more acute during the Covid-19 pandemic, when the need to share public space more is required, is that of illegally driven scrambler bikes. It is something that is tearing residential streets and parks apart and needs to be resolved. At local policing fora, in replies to parliamentary questions, at joint policing committees and in response to Private Members' Bills from my party and others, we are told that the solution is complex. We accept that. However, we do not accept that the problem is unsolvable. As Lord Mayor of Dublin, I established a working group on this issue that involved all stakeholders. What was apparent was a definite need for a change in legislation and a change in Garda procedures. Some of the recommendations included broadening the road traffic legislation to cover public parks, greater control in the context of points of sale, implementation of crush orders for seized bikes, working with industry to limit the sale of petrol, providing better Garda vehicle training to allow safe pursuit and identifying youth diversion programmes.
The previous Dáil established a working group under the Department of Justice and Equality to examine this issue but how many times did it meet? Was a report, even a draft version, published? My constituents do not believe that the Department is taking this matter seriously and it is undermining the relationship with the police in my community. People feel that those in here do not care because they do not have to face the issue every day. They do not live with it. They feel that Members of this House do not care because they do not face the issue of scrambler bikes being ridden on Christmas morning or of football pitches being torn up. I have only two questions. Do officials in the Department care about this issue? What are they going to do about it?
I echo the sentiment with which the Minister began regarding the conduct of An Garda Síochána throughout the pandemic. We are all aware of stories in our own communities where gardaí have excelled at what they do.
I wish to raise the widespread issue of public drinking. It is found in every constituency but has become increasingly prevalent. It is now commonplace to see gangs of people congregating and drinking, often causing much nuisance to nearby residents and littering of the local environment. On occasion, this is leading to acts of violence being perpetrated. We all saw the carry on in Salthill the other day and the increasingly precarious situations in which gardaí find themselves. Strengthening our community policing structures would go a long way towards tackling this issue head-on. The fear factor from antisocial behaviour like this can be reduced through public education, high-interaction patrols, problem solving and enforcement focused on nuisance crimes. Positive relationships between An Garda Síochána and our communities need to be cultivated. Unfortunately, we have seen a continual decline in the numbers of community gardaí in the State over the past decade. What efforts are the Minister and his Department making to curtail the decline in the number of community gardaí?
My second question relates to the phenomenon of Covid parties and lockdown parties. Is the Minister aware of the rise in reports of groups deliberately renting traditional student accommodation to which it is alleged people are travelling significant distances, thereby breaking our social distancing guidelines, having all-day binges and terrorising neighbourhoods? I specifically reference Magazine Road in Cork, which also featured on "Drivetime" this evening, where there is considerable evidence of these lockdown parties occurring. Has this matter been discussed by the Government and are there any emergency measures that could be taken to tackle what is happening? Our gardaí need full support and increased resources to protect elderly neighbourhoods and front-line workers who are bearing the brunt of these parties.
I take this opportunity to record my utmost concern at the ongoing situation in the US, as the Minister has done. The death of George Floyd has shocked and disgusted us all. Brutality should have no place in a modern society. Subsequent events, particularly the treatment of peaceful protesters, have compounded the problem. A quote from Dr. Martin Luther King comes to mind: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." The rights of peaceful protesters must be upheld. An Garda Síochána is at the heart of upholding the rights of those in the communities that its officers serve.
Our community gardaí do great work, much of it unnoticed. I thank the gardaí in my constituency in the community policing unit for their tremendous efforts, in particular during this pandemic. They led the way in the early stages when they helped vulnerable people get groceries and prescriptions. They also assisted with the excellent work of the community call service operated by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, with the assistance of sports clubs such as Cuala and other groups. I thank everyone involved in this superb community initiative.
One of the positives of the pandemic has been the increased Garda visibility across our communities. I hope this will continue throughout the summer. Covid-19 restrictions have been difficult, in particular for the cocooners. I wish to put on record our appreciation to them because they have had a very difficult few months. Equally, our young people have had to go through tough times, with no schooling, no examinations, no part-time work and so on. Many of them want only to hang-out with their friends and understandably so. However, since the easing of restrictions the public has witnessed large gatherings in parks, fields and open spaces. The Garda are doing their best to deal with this and the impact the continued restrictions are having must be considered by Government. Where possible, the Government should allow sports clubs to begin training again and to run summer camps as these provide vital activities for our young people. Shutting down activities for another two or three months is not acceptable. In my view, it would be a recipe for disaster. I ask the Minister to raise these concerns and those of my colleagues with the National Public Health Emergency Team and his colleagues in Cabinet.
I acknowledge what the Deputies have said and I thank them for their contributions. I welcome Deputy Flaherty to the House, although I note he has left the Chamber. As a fellow midlands Deputy, I wish to assure him that I will work closely with him on the matters raised.
In response to the question posed by former Lord Mayor, Deputy McAuliffe, that we do care about the issue of scramblers. I was pleased to receive his observations in his capacity as Lord Mayor. I will respond to the Deputy in writing tomorrow, but I invite him to join me and the Acting Chairman, Deputy Lahart, whose involvement in this area I am aware of, in finding a solution to what is a complex issue. I am confident we will find a solution.
I apologise to Deputies Pádraig O'Sullivan and Devlin for not responding to their questions. I will respond to them in writing. House parties in particular is an issue about which I have been speaking to senior Garda.
If there is time for a reply that is fine, but I am also happy for the Minister to respond in writing.
I commend An Garda Síochána for the good work that many thousands of gardaí have done across the country during this pandemic. For many people, they have been a lifeline. This needs to be recognised and acknowledged.
I too want to comment on what happened in the United States to George Floyd. When one compares policing in the United States with policing in many other places the contrast is very stark. Many of us have watched the video of the policeman with his knee on the neck of George Floyd, holding him down for eight minutes, which resulted in the tragic loss of George Floyd's life. Had he not lost his life, would we be talking about the incident? How many hundreds more people have been in the same position and lived through it? This case has become a touchstone because of one man's death. Thousands of others have suffered similar inhumane treatment but did not die and thus did not reach the same touchstone as a point of contact in regard to the issue of racism.
Racism begins with fear. That fear quickly moves to hatred which in turn moves quickly to aggression. This is evident anywhere it develops and evolves. As has been acknowledged by other Deputies, we have a problem with racism in this country that needs to be recognised and acknowledged as well. There are people here who move in a particular direction and feed that type of attitude. We need to stand firmly against it. I acknowledge the work of the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, and his departmental staff, including on the hate speech legislation. It is hoped that whatever the formation of the new Government it will continue that work.
In regard to An Garda Síochána, as I said, I commend it for the huge work it has done and continues to do.
It must be acknowledged that community policing is at the core of keeping people safe and the service the police provide needs to be easily accessible to everyone. In the vast majority of cases, that is true, As many Deputies will acknowledge, however, in many parts of both rural and urban Ireland, there is often difficulty contacting members of An Garda Síochána when they are needed. That is something we need to recognise. I have certainly come across people in the past, though not during the present pandemic, who contacted An Garda Síochána and faced long delays in getting a response. That is simply due to not having enough bodies on the ground. That also applies to resources such as patrol cars and so on. In many areas, there are not even adequate communication services in place. All those issues need to be acknowledged and worked on into the future in order that they might be resolved.
The reality is that if we are going to build toward resolving such issues, we need to have more gardaí in place. We also need to recognise that while the work done by community gardaí in many places is excellent and they have done very well, there are some situations, which we have all come across, where they have a little bit of an attitude, especially towards young people who come from particular backgrounds. I do not think that helps and some work needs to be done on that. I spoke to senior gardaí about training officers in how they deal with youngsters who are vulnerable to going in a particular direction in order that their attitude towards them does not push them further in that direction, because that can sometimes happen.
I am sure the Minister is aware of the report by Dr. Johnny Connolly, Building Community Resilience, which looked at an area in the south inner city and found that only 1% of people in that community were involved in criminality. Yet, that area would be considered a black spot. This means that 99% of people there are law-abiding citizens who go about their business properly and they are also very damaged by the situation in many of those areas. Will the essence of that report and the lessons to be learned from it be put in place as part of a process to deliver a better service for the communities in places like the north inner city or Coolock, which my colleague will speak about, where huge damage has been done to those communities by a tiny minority of people? What can be done in order to address that?
One of the key things that can be done is implementing much more resilient engagement by the community police service and making sure gardaí are on the ground, are known and are part of the community. In many parts of rural Ireland in the past if someone travelled a rural road, he or she might be afraid to have a bald tyre or a bad tail-light because he or she would come across a Garda checkpoint somewhere. That does not happen anymore. They are not there and people say they travel everywhere and never see a garda.
During this pandemic there has been an upsurge in the number of checkpoints placed on main roads and routes. That is understandable but in many other parts of the country people will often say that they do not have that fear anymore because there is never going to be a Garda checkpoint anywhere. We have to recognise that there needs to be a little more work done by An Garda Síochána on the ground to ensure we change that.
Finally, the youth diversion programme needs more resources and needs to be spread out much more, particularly throughout those black spots where we have difficulties with drug crime.
I am proud of my community and of my constituents who make it a great place to live. I thank the community groups, educators and gardaí for working as hard as they do to try to make our society a better place. However, there is an ongoing drug feud in my area and communities across my constituency are dealing with a never-ending cycle of living in fear and under intimidation. While I understand that particular pressure has been put on the Garda to implement the emergency legislation that was passed in March, the day-to-day crimes in my area have not ceased as a result of lockdown. Most recently, there have been incidents of a more violent nature and some very vicious attacks have been carried out, including stabbings, shootings and young lads attacked with hammers.
They have rocked our communities.
I have raised with the Minister in the past the fact that the number of community gardaí in Coolock dropped dramatically compared with the number assigned in 2012. Communities and constituents in Dublin Bay North should be able to go outside their doors without worrying about whether they will be caught up in any of these incidents. They should be able to feel safe in their own homes and communities. I have been contacted by numerous constituents in recent weeks and people are afraid. Grandparents who are worried about their grandchildren have contacted me. Young people have contacted me because they are afraid to go out with their friends.
The most effective crime policies focus on prevention, and community policing is key to this approach. This means intensive and systematic social investment in marginalised areas. Victims of crime must also be given better supports and follow-up on their cases. This means providing intervention and support services for individuals and families at risk, accountable community policing, and a proactive, routine and continuous engagement with local communities and authorities.
As elected representatives, we all know from working with community gardaí the significant difference a good community garda can make in an area. He or she can build up trust with people at risk of offending, improve public confidence in policing, and ingrain themselves in community activity. However, significant damage has been done to the resourcing of community gardaí in recent years.
Gardaí acknowledge they are overstretched and need supports. Will the Minister write to the Garda Commissioner to seek that he increase the number of community gardaí as a priority? Are we anywhere closer to establishing a task force for my area similar to what was established in the north inner city?
The principle of community policing is of course a good one. However, where gardaí are present in stations for only a few hours each week, there are no visible foot patrols and very few community group meetings with gardaí, then the actions on the ground do not match the principle. An analysis of the force's station directory shows that almost 60% of stations are open for less than three hours per day, Monday to Friday. The number of Garda stations open across the State has decreased by over 20% since 2011 when approximately 703 stations were in operation. The station directory also clearly shows that just over 20% of all stations are currently open on a 24-hour basis. In my county, Meath, there are 300 gardaí for a population in excess of 200,000 people. This represents one garda per 600 people. Most other counties with similar populations have almost double this policing ratio. Even during Covid-19, available gardaí are doing an excellent job, but they are clearly under-resourced in terms of overall numbers and are operating in a very pressurised scenario due to a poor policing ratio.
Community policing is also heavily affected by resources and personnel being routinely redeployed to other activities. In terms of dealing with illicit drug use and trafficking, community policy can come into its own. While canvassing in the recent general election, it was very clear that the issue of illicit drug use and trafficking was uppermost in people's minds, with the obvious knock on effects of an increase in antisocial behaviour and crime rates. This was a key issue in every town and village, with constant reference to the lack of a Garda presence in local stations or on the beat. This view was shared by young and old alike, and there was considerable support across all age groups for the idea that urgent action needed to be taken.
While we need to increase the provision of community-based facilities for younger people and properly funded addiction and rehabilitation services, the absence of a strong community policing presence sends out the wrong signal entirely.
It indicates that the State is not serious about tackling the drugs and associated crime problems, and that the concept of community policing is spin and has no substance.
If we do not put the necessary resources into dealing with these problems, particularly in our smaller towns and villages, we will be allowing the same drug-fuelled gangland-style mentality and crime rate to develop in these towns as exists at present in some of our larger towns and cities. We have an opportunity to prevent this, but only with improved community facilities backed up by strong community policing.
Will the Minister commit to properly resourcing the Garda, particularly in rural areas, to provide a workable community policing initiative? Will he further commit to ensuring resources and personnel assigned to community policing activities are ring-fenced to that activity and not regularly redeployed to other activities?
I thank the Deputy for his comments. I remind him that I do not engage in operational issues with An Garda Síochána; that is a matter for the Garda Commissioner. However, I meet the Garda Commissioner regularly. While I do not have up-to-date figures with me now on the situation in Meath, I would be happy to provide the Deputy with these figures tomorrow and he will see an increase in the number of gardaí in Meath compared with five years ago. I would be happy to convey his views directly to the Garda Commissioner.
I thank Deputy Mitchell for raising the issue important in her constituency, which is also an important priority for me. I visited the area with the Garda Commissioner and with senior gardaí and I know the Taoiseach also did so. I acknowledge the urgency and importance of what the Deputy raised. I actually have figures for Coolock. While I will provide them to her in writing tomorrow, let me say that at the end of April, a few weeks ago, we saw a 20% increase in garda numbers compared with the end of 2015. A total of 247 gardaí are assigned to the Coolock district, which represents a 25% increase compared with 2015. There are 62 Garda staff, an increase of 63%.
Deputy Mitchell has raised the issue of the task force with me previously and I am keen to see progress made in that area. As I said in my opening comments, dealing with issues such as those in the Deputy's constituency is not a matter for policing alone; we need to involve the other agencies in this regard. A former assistant commissioner has been tasked by Dublin City Council with investigating, engaging and reporting. This fits into the common theme of the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, which indicates that ensuring a reduction in crime in communities involves a multi-agency approach. I would be happy to engage further with the Deputy, but I thank her for raising it.
Deputy Martin Kenny raised some other issues that I am sure will arise between now and the end of the debate.
I do not need an oral reply; I will accept a written one.
I join others in expressing my appreciation of An Garda Síochána in the manner gardaí have deported themselves in dealing with the community, involving themselves with the community and supporting the community along with all other members of the public services who have been on the front line for the past two or three months. We greatly appreciate what they have done, and I hope we will remember it.
That is in dramatic contrast to the disgraceful scenes we have witnessed in the United States where it would appear the 1950s and 1960s seem to be still with us regarding prejudice, racism and all that goes with it, and the suspicion and violence that follows it. It is no harm to reflect on that. It could happen anywhere. We all know people who say "I am not a racist, but..." even in our own society. The "but" is what alerts me to what might follow.
Time and attention have been given to direct provision in recent times, which is as it should be.
Many efforts have been made to provide adequate direct provision and accommodation for refugees, as it should be. Those efforts have not always been greeted with full support, however. There have been several disgraceful scenes throughout the country where there were indications that perhaps the support that one would have liked was not there. This comes about as a result of what we have seen on our television screens right across Europe, when children have been washed up on shores and people have said "No", that refugees cannot come there, there is no space and they do not want them. I do not wish to have a written reply, but at a later stage we should have a debate on this very important issue.
My last point concerns organised crime and the drugs business, which has already been mentioned. I believe there is no way to deal with that issue through the community. The kingpins of the organised criminal gangs have to be put behind bars, and whatever legislation is required to do that should be undertaken without delay.
In December 2015, the former Minister for Justice and Equality, former Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, stated that funding for a new Garda station for Sligo would be identified in the 2017 to 2021 capital plan. In January 2017, the Office of Public Works, OPW, issued an advertisement for a site for the new station, along with Macroom and Clonmel, as part of a public-private partnership project, PPP. In mid-2017, gardaí had to leave the station in Sligo on health and safety grounds. This makes the issue worse. Also in mid-2017, remedial health and safety works were progressed in Sligo Garda station and a new station was still a priority. At the end of 2017, the Minister for Justice and Equality reaffirmed the commitment to a new Garda station for Sligo. In mid-2018, a new site was acquired by the OPW for a new Garda station at Caltragh in Sligo.
On foot of that, I put in a parliamentary question last week:
To ask the Minister for Justice and Equality the status of the provision of the new regional Garda headquarters in County Sligo as set out in the capital plan of his Department; the stage the project is at; when a planning application will be submitted; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
The reply I got stated:
[S]ignificant remedial works have already taken place in the existing Garda station in Sligo, including the complete upgrade of the three floors in the building containing the public office and the provision of new locker facilities. Further upgrade works are progressing and involve the provision of new cells and custody management facilities.
The Garda Commissioner has decided that rather than construct an entirely new building, as was originally intended under the PPP model, the upgrading of the existing station to a high standard will continue. I have been assured that the upgrades will continue ... [and] ... that accommodation needs are addressed and that the station is upgraded to meet the future operational requirements of Garda members, staff and the public who use it.
I have several questions. This is a huge shock to and setback for me, and it seems that the politicians, the people and the gardaí in Sligo were misled. Why are Macroom and Clonmel deemed to be more in need of a new Garda station than Sligo, which is at the centre of the Project Ireland 2040 capital plan as a regional growth centre and the capital of the north west? What has changed since the former Minister for Justice and Equality, former Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, said that we badly needed a new Garda station in Sligo? Are gardaí being punished for taking a public stand by leaving their unsafe Garda station? What will happen to the site that was stated would be purchased in Sligo? What do we have to do to finally get a state-of-the-art facility for the brave men and women of An Garda Síochána who serve the citizens of Sligo and the north west? This is an absolute disgrace. Commitments were made and I believe those commitments should be delivered upon.
I join my colleagues in the House in condemning the brutal murder of George Floyd in the United States and all that has gone with that since then. One positive thing to come from this is a coming together of a range of different people and races peacefully, as has been shown in recent days, to stand together against the abuse of and discrimination against black people.
It is worth putting on the record of this House the concept of white privilege and how that can be normatised in our own lives. As we develop as a more racially integrated society, we need to become more conscious of that within our politics and the advantages white privilege has brought. I refer to the concept of the "invisible knapsack", a term coined by Peggy McIntosh in 1990 in respect of white privilege. The concept is not about racism being something that disadvantages others, but the corollary that whiteness is in itself an advantage and the need to really try to understand that idea.
On social media, which is so useful in this way, we have seen many different memes of white privilege and associated tests. That is not to be tokenistic or to try to diminish the seriousness of this issue. They are a useful check of our understanding of ourselves, our place in the world and the advantages conferred on us, not just in this House, this country or this Parliament.
They highlight how difficult it can be for people of different races who are not in a majority situation and have not had the inherent advantages that come with that. I stress that I do not wish to be tokenistic but, rather, to put on the record of the House that I have never been the only person of my race in a room or the victim of violence because of my race. Nobody has ever told me that I sound white or that they wish to check whether my hair feels real or anything of that nature. As I stated, I do not wish to be tokenistic. Sometimes there is value in these things being created as a picture or in reference to oneself in order to try really to understand the nature of race and race relations, particularly as we become a more integrated society.
On a more local matter, there were significant public order difficulties in areas of Dún Laoghaire, my constituency, including in Seapoint, Sandycove, Dalkey, Killiney and Shankill, where, naturally, children or young people who were mad to get out of the house congregated. It has caused a significant public order issue. I thank the Garda for its actions over the weekend to try to help and intervene. I hope those difficulties will not be an ongoing feature of the summer and that the Minister will provide every support to the Garda as it tries to deal with the issue.
I thank the Deputy for raising the latter points. She will be pleased to hear that the Garda is currently investigating public order issues, which were also raised earlier by Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan. I understand that several investigations are ongoing in the context of the Covid-19 regulatory framework. It would not be appropriate for me to comment in any detail, but I assure Deputies that such investigations are under way.
I agree with Deputy Carroll McNeill on anti-racism. Along with my Government colleagues, I, particularly in my capacity as Minister for Justice and Equality, abhor racism in all its forms, wherever and however it arises. The Government and I, along with the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, who has specific responsibility in that area, are fully committed to ensuring that Ireland is a safe and secure place for everybody and that appropriate tools are in place to address racism or xenophobia in any form. I make no apologies for indicating my intention to introduce a specific crime of hate speech, thus developing further protection against hate crime. There is a working group on the issue and I intend to report progress on that at the earliest date in the form of proposals for legislative change. As far as the Garda is concerned, there is very positive and active engagement to ensure that the Garda diversity and integration strategy is fully rolled out and upheld. In addition, there is the migrant integration strategy and, of course, community integration funds which will help communities to support integration and diversity and allow people to be fully engaged.
On Sligo Garda station, I am happy to provide further information to Deputy Feighan. The Garda Commissioner has decided that rather than construct an entirely new building as was the original intention, the existing Garda station, which I visited some time ago, will be the subject of a multi-million euro renovation programme. I am very keen for that to get under way at an early date.
I agree with Deputy Durkan on the need for ongoing and further debate on our immigration policy.
I thank my colleague, Deputy O'Gorman, for allowing me to usurp some of his time. I will be as quick as possible. I ask the Minister to reply to me in writing if he feels the need to so do, rather than taking up more of Deputy O'Gorman's time.
I echo the views expressed by many other Deputies regarding the murder in America and the horrendous racism we are seeing there. I am conscious that we must also look to the beam in our own eye. Like many other Deputies, I receive many emails regarding direct provision, the treatment of Travellers and the need for hate crime legislation.
This is an area where we need to be aware of our own issues and look closely at them, instead of simply patting ourselves on the back and saying that at least we are not as bad as America, where things are truly bad.
I would also like to ask the Minister about the divisional protective services units. These are an excellent development within An Garda Síochána. While I am aware they are being staffed by gardaí with specialist training, what engagement has there been with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and Tusla to ensure social workers are sitting at the same table as gardaí? When they are sitting together, there is an overlap between their work in regard to sexual violence, child protection and domestic violence. International studies have shown that it is best when social workers and law enforcement are sitting at the same table, talking the same language and pulling in the same direction. I have raised this with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and while it is important that Tusla ensures it pushes its way into those units, it is important that we invite it in as well. That is why I am asking the Minister for Justice and Equality as well as the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.
In my own constituency, there have been issues of antisocial behaviour and there is a great need for improved community policing. We need to look at creative ways to ensure there are more police on the beat - more police walking or cycling through these estates or cycling up and down the canal, as I have said.
I was pleased to hear the Minister specifically reference the work of gardaí in Blanchardstown during the Covid-19 crisis. I would also like to pay tribute to them, particularly the support they have given to voluntary and sporting groups in the area in the context of Fingal's Community Call scheme.
Under the current regulations, recruitment to An Garda Síochána is limited to those of 35 years or younger and the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland has recommended that this age bar be scrapped. The Minister responded to a parliamentary question I put down recently by stating that the age barrier is being considered as part of a broader review of the entry into and recruitment to the Garda. Will the Minister provide more detail about this, particularly who it is envisaged will sit on this working group and what is the expected timeline for its commencement, for its work to take place and for any changes to be made to the age barrier?
In the United States this week, we saw and we are seeing what happens when a police force systemically fails to represent the communities it polices. Within the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, it was stated very clearly that the idea of community policing has to be the policing model that Ireland adopts. It is vital the Garda reflects the very diverse communities in which it operates. I know this is something the Minister has acknowledged and it is also acknowledged by the commission's report. The Garda diversity and integration strategy, which was published last year, commits to the identification of barriers to recruiting and retaining people from diverse and minority backgrounds as Garda members, Garda staff and Garda reserves, and to work to mitigate or remove these barriers. Will the Minister give us statistics on the number of officers from diverse and minority backgrounds who are currently serving in the Garda? Will he outline what work is being done right now to implement that goal from the diversity and integration strategy? Will this work form part of the broader review of entry into the Garda to which I referred earlier?
I thank Deputies Costello and O'Gorman for their contributions and questions. Deputy Costello indicated he might opt for a reply in writing in order to give me the opportunity to reply to Deputy O'Gorman, and I acknowledge his generosity in that regard. I agree with the points raised by Deputy Costello and would be happy to commit to a detailed reply in writing.
I acknowledge what Deputy O'Gorman has said with particular reference to the expert review group on recruit education and entry pathways into An Garda Síochána. That, of course, is a key action under A Policing Service for the Future plan.
An Garda Síochána hopes to form that group very shortly. I would be happy to engage further with the Deputy on the make-up of the group. I invite any suggestions or observations he might have. I would be very happy to feed them along the line because I think that is important.
I agree about the age barrier. It is one of a number of recommendations under the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, all of which are part of the implementation plan, the implementation group of which is chaired by the Department of the Taoiseach. This group meets regularly. The challenge of engagement in recent weeks has resulted in the initial deadlines not being absolutely met. I would have preferred at this stage in the early summer of 2020 to be introducing the legislation. I am not in a position to do so, but I assure the House that work is ongoing in my Department. I anticipate the legislation would be ready for publication in autumn of this year and then be subject to the appropriate level of debate.
On Garda recruitment and diversity, I assure all Deputies, as this issue was also raised by Deputy Martin Kenny tonight, and not for the first time, that under the current Garda Commissioner there has been specific, active engagement on his part to broaden the composition of An Garda Síochána to reflect society. This involves active engagement of a new nature, for example, in visits of members of An Garda Síochána to schools, through direct liaison and engagement with careers guidance officers, and with active engagement by the distribution of information leaflets in different languages. A recent advertisement for Garda recruitment was placed in Arabic, which I very much welcome. I feel that these are issues on which Deputy O'Gorman would like to see a greater level of progress. I will give the Deputy figures on composition. I know from my own knowledge that at the last two Garda attestation ceremonies in the Garda Training College in Templemore there were a large number of international flags across the college courtyard denoting and highlighting the countries of origin of the graduates on those occasions, including Latvia, Lithuania, Portugal, Australia, the UK and further afield. I am happy to obtain an actual breakdown of the composition from the Garda Commissioner at an early date.
I must also acknowledge the language skills within An Garda Síochána. This helps engagement to take place at a very intense level within communities. The migrant integration strategy, under the direction of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, commits all public bodies, including An Garda Síochána, to the type of engagement that means communities are well represented among the Garda and that we can continue to engage in the type of community policing that differentiates, as I said earlier, the Garda Síochána from most police services throughout the world. This is very much a theme of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. I am happy to engage further on that. I have visited Blanchardstown Garda station, which is in Deputy O'Gorman's constituency. I also had the opportunity of viewing the highly entertaining and very informing TV series recently, which brought out the best of An Garda Síochána, with regard to the work its members do in communities and in protecting us all from harm daily and nightly.
The best asset the Garda has is the community policing and community garda unit.
As we are all aware, it has been a difficult decade for the Garda. Trust has been damaged by a number of incidents and issues which have been well debated in the House down through the years. As have many other public representatives, I have witnessed the benefits of good community gardaí when they come to a community centre to meet local residents and explain how the local gardaí work, the organisation's limitations and what gardaí can and cannot do. It makes a huge difference. A good community garda is worth his or her weight in gold, and I join everyone here in pleading for a focus on providing more of them, setting higher targets for Templemore, and having it meet those targets of getting trainees and recruits through. We need a strong and compassionate police force, and community gardaí are on the front line of this.
I have a number of questions on the request made by Deputy Ó Ríordáin, among others, including Deputies who have spoken in this debate. This is for a task force for the north side of Dublin with regard to the feud that has been going on. It is greatly needed. What is the update on this? We need a Mulvey-style task force for the north side of Dublin. I also seek an update on the Minister's commitments on being 100% behind the community of Drogheda in tackling the multifaceted and complex issues in that town.
The debates in the House this week have reflected the anger and passion we have for tackling racial discrimination everywhere we see it. Where we see it most vividly and most scarily at present is in the United States. When I was a teenager learning about the world, I was opened up to the dichotomy of the United States through a couple of songs recorded by Bruce Springsteen in 1999. Both songs taken together capture why the crimes of that country transcend its borders and affect us so deeply in Ireland and throughout the world. The first song is "Land of Hope and Dreams", which speaks to the promise of America that it welcomes all, that it welcomes saint, sinner, loser, winner and lost soul, and that for those who invest in its promise, that faith will be rewarded. However, this is a false promise. It is the false promise of the United States. The reality of the United States is in the second song from that same year, "American Skin (41 Shots)". That song was about the killing of an unarmed black man named Amadou Diallo. Forty-one shots were fired by four police officers, 19 of which hit him and killed him. The song's lyrics speak of a mother warning her son that if he meets a police officer, he should always be polite and always keep his hands in sight, because the reality of that country then and now is that people can get killed, as the song says, just for being in their American skin.
I am so thankful I live in a country where, for all the problems we have and the challenges we face, we are not there. As Deputy Jim O'Callaghan mentioned earlier, we cannot take it for granted. A polarised society is never too far away. I ran in two elections this year, a by-election and a general election, in which a far right candidate ran purely on a platform of division and racial hatred. It is here. Only today I had to report a Twitter account purporting to represent a town in my constituency that just tweets out racist bile and division and horrendous stuff. It is here and we are dealing with it every day. It is not a million miles away.
We did not place America on this moral high ground. It placed itself there. It said it was the land of the free, the home of the brave, and the leader of the free world, but it is absolutely none of these things and it probably never was. The murders of George Floyd two weeks ago, of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and of Amadou Diallo in 1999 are just three high-profile touchstone cases for killings that happen all too frequently in a country that has a long and shameful record in the treatment of black people and people of colour. I am so heartened by the expressions of solidarity not only by the Minister but throughout the House with the Black Lives Matter movement. It is vital. It is a global movement and one we should all support, not only with words and rhetoric in the House but with actions and practical solutions.
I was disheartened by the response of the Taoiseach today when discussing the direct provision system. The system is probably our most visible example of systemic racial discrimination. It is inhumane and outdated. As Minister of State with responsibility for equality in 2014, Deputy Ó Ríordáin tried to begin a process to have it dismantled. That process stalled. It needs to be restarted and the Labour Party will make a commitment to promise to support any legislation in the next Government that would seek to dismantle the system.
There are things that can be done now which are practical and would go a long way towards building trust with minorities in Ireland. I will put five proposals to the Minister and would love to hear his response to them. They were put forward by my Seanad colleague, Senator Annie Hoey, today. They can be delivered in a short space of time. One, we would like to see justice for undocumented workers, allowing them access to the employment permits system. If someone lives here, he or she works here, and if that person works here, he or she belongs here. We believe in that mantra.
Two, we would like SUSI grants to be extended to those living in direct provision. A ceiling that is not placed over others is placed above those children who have grown up in the Irish education system, have sat the leaving certificate or the leaving certificate applied but are denied access to third level education because they cannot get a SUSI grant. It locks them out. That must be stopped and can be done very quickly.
Three, legislate to give citizenship to children born here. We do not need a referendum. Children born here should belong here. My colleague, Senator Bacik, has introduced a Bill which would allow children to be considered for citizenship as independent applicants, irrespective of the status of their parents. That can be done through legislation, which, I am sure, would be supported.
Four, the Traveller Culture and History in Education Bill 2018 should be passed. We have a shameful relationship with the Traveller community. It is one of exclusion, and discrimination is rife. By making Traveller culture and history compulsory in schools, this Bill would go a long way towards mending that fractured relationship.
Five, expand the right to work protection. Barriers to entering employment continue to exist. People cannot obtain a driver's licence and have trouble opening a bank account.
These are things that can be changed very quickly. I believe these five requests would get the support of every grouping in this House. As a collective it would show a maturity in our politics. Bringing them forward would be real new politics. This interregnum between two Governments would not be a problem in moving them forward. I ask the Minister to consider these five proposals, examine them and get them through. I ask him to answer my earlier questions too.
Deputy Smith raises several very important points that in one minute 48 seconds I will not have an opportunity to reply to in the type of detail that I would wish. I would of course be happy to engage on all of the points he raised. I note his representations on behalf of his colleagues, Deputies Nash and Ó Ríordáin, in respect of organised crime in their constituencies. I did have the opportunity in the Seanad, when both of those Deputies were Members of that House, to discuss that. I have noted carefully the comments and point to what I said earlier to Deputy Mitchell in respect of the Coolock-Darndale-Clongriffin area. It is an issue that has been the subject matter of intense engagement between me, local communities, the Garda Síochána and the former assistant commissioner, engaged on the ground now, with a view to seeing how best we can deal with community building and community engagement, more than just the important issue of An Garda Síochána. I said the same to Deputy Nash after a recent visit to Drogheda.
I am not happy with the current arrangements in direct provision. They are far from ideal and far from perfect. I am on the record as having said that on numerous occasions. I acknowledge some improvements. However, I understand the concern of Deputy Smith and share many of his concerns in respect of specific instances.
I would be happy to engage on that matter further. Perhaps we will have an opportunity for a more comprehensive debate on that issue in the future. In the meantime, I am actively engaged with those in the direct provision centres, with the centre managers and with senior officials in my Department and in the agencies to ensure that significant improvements are made, and made urgently.
I acknowledge the role of the Garda in the community call initiative. A huge amount of unseen work has been done on that and some good relationships have been built up through that initiative that should be encouraged to continue after the Covid-19 pandemic is over, and we hope that will be sooner rather than later. For some areas, it has been novel to see the kind of visibility of gardaí that there has been in recent times. This issue came up strongly in the general election. The lack of matching resources, including Garda resources, for housing developments has been a bone of contention for some considerable years.
The new policing plan is called Keeping People Safe. This plan has created new divisions and the model is based on community policing. That cannot be done without resources. For example, counties such as Kildare and Meath have had extraordinary levels of population growth. Meath has the lowest ratio of gardaí to population of any county. It only recently replaced Kildare in that bracket, which has the second lowest ratio of gardaí to population. While that is not the only metric one would use, it is an important one in terms of the distribution of resources. It is difficult to see how counties that need to catch up to a particular level will do so without a proactive approach and a deliberate strategy to achieve that aim. It was disappointing when the new divisions were announced. The announcement was made for counties Laois, Offaly and Kildare, but Kildare, with a population of 220,000, was not selected as the location for the new division. Laois and Portlaoise was the area selected. There is a feeling that what is out of sight is out of mind and that new resources will go to the new divisions.
The same thing happened in Meath with the selection of Mullingar as opposed to Navan for a new division. Again, the same disparity of population pertains in that instance. There are long distances between the main population centres and the areas the new divisions have been chosen for. It is important that there is a commitment to bring the resources up to an acceptable level because otherwise we will see a post-Covid-19 reaction to the lack of visibility.
I want to raise the issue of direct provision with the Minister. I listened to the Taoiseach this afternoon when he described some direct provision centres as being substandard. Will the Minister give us an indication of how many of those locations he regards as being substandard? I share the views that many Members of this House make about the system needing to be dispensed with and a more humane system being put in place. In the meantime, things can be done immediately. Will the Minister address the issue of how many direct provision centres would be deemed to be substandard? Where are those centres located? Would Miltown Malbay be included as one of those centres? I suspect that it is.
I refer to the emergency powers provided for in the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020 that was enacted in this House by all sides.
One of the areas of great concern was when those powers would end. I think there is a date in July when there will be a review. The concern was that once implemented, the powers might not be fully rolled back. I acknowledge that the Garda has handled this very sensitively, but at the same time we need to know how these powers will cease to be implemented as the roadmap is rolled out. The Minister might address that concern. I know this will come up for review. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties, for example, has called for a cessation of the Garda powers. Many of us are very uncomfortable with the powers, despite the fact that they have been sensitively handled by the Garda.
I too express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The United States has become a powder keg, and it is difficult to see the tensions, which are not coming out of nowhere. The situation really makes us look at ourselves and how we handle things. We have to be particularly sensitive to people in direct provision and other vulnerable groups.
I have asked a couple of questions. I ask the Minister to respond to them.
There were a number of questions. I thank Deputy Murphy for her contribution and her support for the work of the Garda Síochána in the current challenging circumstances.
The Deputy raised the issue of Garda strength in her constituency of Kildare North. While I do not have the figures with me tonight, I would be happy to provide her with them tomorrow. They will show an increase in numbers in the north Kildare area on the numbers from five years ago. All this is part of a national recruitment campaign to increase numbers as a result of the record investment on the part of Government of €1.8 billion this year, every cent of which is being wisely spent by the Garda Commissioner and his team, allowing for record numbers of gardaí, with 14,750 currently engaged in every community across the State. Our target - my target - of 15,000 sworn members of An Garda Síochána and 4,000 civilian staff by the end of next year is well on its path. I would be happy to report to the House further on that. Only last week I spoke to the chief superintendent for the area, John Scanlan. While of course I acknowledge my role as Minister not to be engaged in any operational matters, I can tell the House and Deputy Murphy that the chief superintendent is actively engaged in ensuring there is not the type of disparity that Deputy Murphy hopes there will not be in the context of the new division and that specific attention is being given to numbers in the north Kildare area so as to ensure there is no imbalance.
On direct provision, I repeat what I said earlier. I am far from happy with the current regime. I do, however, acknowledge recent improvements. I do not want anybody in substandard accommodation. The Deputy mentioned one centre in respect of which I have requested an inspection in the form of an examination. I expect to have that to hand over the next 48 to 72 hours and, again, I would be happy to update the House on that. I do not want anybody living in substandard accommodation, and I will ensure that that is the case. I acknowledge the work of an independent committee, an expert group, led by former EU Secretary General, Dr. Catherine Day, examining best practice on the international stage and the provision of services, including accommodation.
I have asked Dr. Day and the group whether they could possibly bring forward their reporting to ensure that I could have it at the early opportunity. Again, I would be happy to share that with the House.
I am not going to ask a question about gardaí because this opportunity needs to be used to address a matter that has been kicked around the houses. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, says it is the responsibility of the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Regina Doherty. She tells me it is the responsibility of the Minister, Deputy Flanagan. I refer to the extension of maternity leave and benefits for women who are being forced to return to work. These women have recently had babies and have been on maternity leave. They are worried that they cannot return to work. I have been told repeatedly that this matter requires primary legislation. Frankly, I do not accept that. It was welcome to see last week that the Minister for Finance, having been forced into it, changed the rules relating to the wage subsidy scheme in respect of how it affects those returning from maternity leave. He stated that retrospective legislation would be required.
I do not accept that the Government cannot find a way, if it has the political will, to provide a solution to a real problem for women faced with the option of having to return to work after their leave has expired in circumstances where they cannot access childcare, family support or other types of support or leave arrangements. We must extend their leave for the period of the Covid-19 pandemic and the benefits that go with it. Otherwise, we are flying in the face of the policy which states that no one will be left out. Thousands of women and children will be left out unless the political will emerges to find address that.
The Minister will know that new mothers have a petition that has been signed by over 23,000 people. We have a motion circulating through the Dáil calling for the Government to find a way to do what I have outlined. I am pleased to say that over 20 Deputies have signed up to the motion. I encourage Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin to co-sign it as a way to apply pressure on the Government. Legislation could be applied retrospectively, just as it has been in respect of the other maternity leave arrangements under the wage subsidy scheme. If we do not do this, we will be flying in the face of the logic of the whole emergency relating to the pandemic. We have changed laws on planning applications and suspended the Redundancy Payments Act. We have frozen evictions and other legislation has been either frozen or suspended. Women and children deserve the same respect. They need this legislation to cover them for the period of Covid-19 because, for many and various reasons, they cannot return to work. I call on the Minister to address this.
I also want to raise the question of the Miltown Malbay direct provision centre. I know the Minister and the International Protection Accommodation Service have received many letters from local citizens who have been providing blankets, food, clothes and support for those people the system has failed yet again. Yet, they have received no answers to the correspondence. They say that the building is unsuitable and requires extensive renovation. There is a litany of complaints about the centre, where the management have proven themselves to be unsuitable. This is not only about Miltown Malbay or the failings of one site, it is about the failings of the entire system of direct provision. That is why we are calling for an end to direct provision and an amnesty for all those caught within its net. It is a system designed to humiliate, punish and discourage others from coming to this country to seek international protection. It is one of 65 sites throughout the country run by a privately operated for-profit entity.
In the national media, the Minister told us that the people in these centres are his responsibility. I appeal to him to act like they are and stop the light-touch or no-touch regime overseeing these centres. The Minister has just stated that he requested an inspection of the centre in question. That is my understanding of what he has just said. The Reception and Integration Agency site states that every effort is made to inspect accommodation centres approximately three times annually. That centre has been open for one year. I checked the website. There is no record of any inspection of that centre. If the Minister is requesting an inspection one year later, then there is some fault in the system.
If not, will the Minister please answer this question? We must look hard at the matter of direct provision. The system has been in existence for 20 years and we are constantly talking about getting rid of it.
-----until I have further information. It was difficult over the past few weeks to have the type of inspection that the Deputy would like with particular reference to the Covid-19 crisis. However, I expect to be in a position to make a further announcement on this issue within a matter of 48 hours. I will contact the Deputy directly.
I made the point in an earlier debate that the world watched with horror the brutal police murder of George Floyd and that many, myself included, watched with admiration the multiracial uprising of young people in the US against its President, police forces and an entire system that is riddled with inequality and racism. In this debate, I wish to make some further points and bring that discussion back to Ireland. President Trump has repeated the phrase once used by a racist police chief, "When the looting starts, the shooting starts", giving a green light to white supremacists to bring their guns into the equation. However, the real looters are the American billionaires who have increased their wealth by an incredible $485 billion in the past ten weeks while Covid-19 swept the country and put 43 million out of work. I hope and am confident that the new generation building the movement that we see in the US will reach back to and rediscover the best traditions of the black freedom movement of the 1960s, the traditions of the likes of Martin Luther King, who said, "[W]e are saying that something is wrong ... with capitalism ... There must be better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism", and the traditions of people like Malcolm X, who drew the conclusion that one could not have capitalism without racism. It is not just the four police officers, it is the entire system that is guilty. Clearly, it is time for change.
Of course, racism is not an American phenomenon. A young woman who participated in the Black Lives Matter movement in Dublin last Saturday, Judy Ehiguese – I hope I am pronouncing her name correctly – told the media: "It’s not spoken about here because it’s not as serious as what you see in America where people are shot or killed." Quite poetically, she stated: "It hides in the bushes and the trees here; it's silent." Another participant in the demonstration, Lawson Mpame – again, I hope I am doing justice to the man's name – said:
Many Irish people still refuse to accept racism is a problem in this country.
They think we're just making it up but I've experienced it at first hand, my family has experienced it and my friends too.
[...] Being black in Ireland should mean being part of the Irish community but sometimes we feel like we’re not actually part of this community. It feels like we’re second-class citizens and we don’t have the same rights as you guys. That has to change and that needs to start now.
I will just make a brief point on this. I believe that protests in the current period have to be organised with stewarding, social distancing, masks and other safety measures, but I am opposed to the decision of the Garda to launch a criminal investigation into the organisers of last weekend's demonstration. One of the reasons for doing this so publicly was to create a chill factor for the organisers of other demonstrations being planned over the next few days. Some of those organisers are young black people.
It amounts to a criminalisation of protest and the investigation should be dropped.
The words of those young people can be backed up by facts. It is a fact that the incidents of racism recorded in this State for quarter 1 this year were double the number for quarter 1 last year. It is a fact that a UN committee reviewing racism in Irish society found an increasing incidence of racist hate speech against Travellers, Roma, refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. It is a fact that the UN is calling for proper human rights and equality training for State officials and that it made special mention of the need for such training for Ireland's policing and law enforcement officials. I do not have time to talk about the scandal of direct provision, nor how the housing and jobs crises are fanning the flames of racism by forcing people to compete for scarce resources. Clearly, these are issues in this country and they must be tackled.
The brutal murder of George Floyd in the US last week was heartbreaking to see on television. The fact that such racism exists in the US in 2020 is both heartbreaking and a cause of deep frustration. For a country such as ours that has such deep ties to the US, to see it burn night after night with such violence is distressing. It is radically important that there is justice for George Floyd and his family and that racism is systematically rooted out in the US and in every other country.
Aontú is an Irish republican party. We believe in the equality of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, that all of the children of the nation should be cherished equally. We radically oppose discrimination in every guise. However, it can be easier to identify the prejudice and racism that is abroad. Many people are rightly angry about what is happening in the US but are oblivious to what happens to Travellers in this country every single day. The societal inequalities that are a major ingredient in the trouble happening in the United States are alive and well in Ireland. We must fix our own failings in this country. That said, our response really needs to reflect the current pandemic. It is against public health policy for thousands of people to march in a manner where social distancing is impossible. Last week, elected representatives called on people to protect front-line workers from illness and death by staying at home. Is it logical now to dismiss such a threat and organise mass gatherings where we cannot guarantee social distancing? What does that say to workers, bereaved families and the owners of small businesses? Take the pain, financially and emotionally, of the lockdown and protect vulnerable front-line workers while we go out in our thousands to march. Are we really saying to the students who should have been sitting the leaving certificate this week "Come out and march in your thousands with us instead"? Political leaders need to speak with clarity. If the Chief Medical Officer can clearly state that these marches are a threat to public health, why can the Taoiseach not do the same? Public protest is a key element of a liberal democracy and I will fight for the right to publicly protest but common sense also needs to prevail at this time. Let us suppress the virus, get the country back to normal as quickly and as safely as possible and then let our voices for justice be heard in unison.
I wish to broach another key issue with the Minister. Families in my constituency of Meath West, like families all over the country, are being terrorised by antisocial behaviour at the moment. The hot summer days have brought large groups of people, young and old, into public spaces for Covid parties, to drink and take drugs. These groups are damaging property, setting fires and physically threatening passersby. Many of them are holding Covid parties right up against other people's houses. When antisocial behaviour such as this happens night after night, it really takes over people's lives and can cost radically, not just in terms of broken windows but of sleepless nights and mental health. This summer's antisocial behaviour comes on the back of a radical increase in both crime and this type of behaviour in County Meath in recent years. Town centres have been hammered with drug dealing. Petrol bombs have been thrown at the courthouse in Trim. Hatchet attacks have happened in the middle of the day in housing estates and there has been a massive rise in incidents of sexual assault.
There are restaurants in County Meath that close at 9 p.m. every night due to the anti-social behaviour that is taking place, while in other towns they stay open until midnight. People in rural Ireland have told me that they are sleeping with knives under their pillows. People who are walking home from pubs and nightclubs are ending up in accident and emergency departments. A significant reason for this is that Meath has the lowest number of gardaí per capita in the State. As previous Deputies have noted, Meath has lost its headquarters to another county. Large urban areas such as Johnstown in Navan have no Garda station. Ratoath has no Garda station. Finnea, Kilmessan and Crossakiel have lost their Garda stations. Where there are Garda stations, many are only open for a few hours a day.
The Minister said that Ireland has never seen so many gardaí. In real terms, per capita, there were more gardaí in 2011 than there are today. We have a lower number of gardaí per capita in this State than we did in 2011. When the Minister talks about Garda numbers, he gives 2015 as the baseline. For four years previously, there were radical cuts in the number of gardaí. Giving 2015 as a baseline for Garda figures is not a real reflection of the experience of people-----
The Minister mentioned the increase in the number of gardaí in County Meath. Yes, the number of gardaí in County Meath has increased in the past couple of years but the population of Meath is skyrocketing so the same point stands. Per capita, the Minister is not maintaining the same pace of growth with the number of gardaí. It is very frustrating as well because the Minister says he has no operational hand in determining where gardaí are located but the Minister for Justice and Equality in this country can set policy objectives for civil servants and the Garda to follow. One of those policy objectives could simply be that there is a fair and even distribution of gardaí throughout the country and that the demographic size of a county has some bearing on and relationship to the number of gardaí it has. I have been here a number of times speaking about this issue. It is radically important that when the new Government is formed with Fianna Fáil, there is a fair distribution of gardaí across the country because if this does not happen, there will be communities and counties such as Meath and Kildare that will suffer radically in the future.
I wish to mention direct provision because it relates to the first point I mentioned. The Minister mentioned that he was unhappy with the direct provision situation in this country. His party has been in government for ten long years. How many years does a party have to be in government for it to act on its unhappiness with regard to a certain issue? When it comes to direct provision, as I understand it, the protocol says that journalists must first ask permission from the Department before they are permitted to interview residents and staff in direct provision centres, so journalists are often refused permission and referred to other direct provision centres rather than the direct provision centres in which they express an interest. Surely in a liberal democracy, when investigative journalists want to talk to individuals, be they staff or residents, they should be able to do so without the Government intervening.
In connection with the protest, it is important that we all recognise, as do I, the right to assembly and freedom of association, both of which are fundamental to any democracy. Having said that, we are in a crisis. This House agreed to the implementation of unprecedented legislation providing powers of a special and emergency nature for An Garda Síochána in the context of the public health expert advice. Similarly, I note the public health expert advice in respect of marches and the assembly of persons in large numbers. I hope that this advice will be followed by everybody.
Deputy Barry has left the Chamber.
His remarks in respect of the protest last weekend are not entirely accurate. The matter is the subject of a Garda investigation. I will say no more about it, other than to point out that the organisers and the Garda worked constructively and positively together to ensure that every effort was made to comply with the appropriate regulations. I hope that there is not a repetition of it at any time in the future.
I will communicate with Deputy Tóibín on the matter of Garda numbers. I do not think it is unreasonable that there should be a direct correlation between Garda numbers and population. I am satisfied that the Garda Síochána is very much aware of that. Again, I would hope that in the context of the record investment these issues would be adequately addressed. As Minister for Justice and Equality, I do not intervene or interfere in operational matters and I make no apologies for that.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I thank the many gardaí, male and female, throughout this country who uphold law and order and carry out their duties, largely unarmed, in dangerous situations where they come across villains, thugs, drug lords and others involved in serious crime. I thank them for all that they do locally to help the elderly and people living alone and, in particular, for apprehending the villains that attack and rob those individuals in their homes. I sincerely thank each and every garda for his or her efforts in that regard. I also thank gardaí for their work to help control the virus. They are to be commended for their response to the call to control the virus.
I was not here when the session commenced but I heard the Minister mention inspections of direct provision centres and state that many of them are unsuitable. I have always maintained that Cahersiveen direct provision centre is not suitable. It was pointed out to me that the rooms, hallways and communal spaces are too small to accommodate the refugees located there, some of whom contracted the virus.
This morning, the Taoiseach spoke about reducing the €350 payment for part-time workers. I am calling on the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, as a member of the Government, to ensure that this does not happen. I am of the view that what is proposed is a calculated attack on hotel workers, particularly those on the X's and O's who work two, three and four days per week. These are not people who worked part-time by choice; they are the people who helped to keep hotels open and ticking over in the winter months and at quiet times. There should be no cut in the payment for workers to whom I refer. As already stated, they were working to keep the hotels open. I ask the Minister to ensure this is taken into account when the matter is again being discussed at Cabinet. These people want to work.
Restaurants and cafés will reopen on 29 June. I am calling on the Government to allow hotels, pubs and the tourism sector to open on that date as well. Spain and Italy are opening up again. The crisis was far worse in those countries than it was here. We need to get this country moving again and open it up to the people.
We must ensure all the people in Ireland, at least those in the Twenty-six Counties and even those in the Thirty-two Counties, can go to the local attractions in places like Killarney, Dingle, Cahersiveen, Kenmare, Ballybunion and Ballyheigue, as well as places in other counties. We must ensure people who are cooped up in apartments in cities and urban places get the chance to go down the country and have some bit of a summer for four or five weeks. We must give the people who own these pubs and hotels the chance to open their doors, have faith in the ventures they have worked so hard to put together, and give them a bit of chance to have some bit of a summer, because if we wait until 10 August we can forget about it. The chance will be gone by then because that is only a week before the children go back to school. I am asking the Ministers to get together, open up the country and let the people get back working.
Community policing has served us well down through the years in west Cork with excellent gardaí such as Damian White and Brigid Hartnett who have been second to none in carrying out their duties and protecting the people they serve. This has not been made easy through the years due to the closure by the previous Fine Gael Government of seven Garda stations in west Cork, namely, those in Castletownshend, Ballygurteen, Ballyfeard, Goleen, Inchigeela, Ballinspittle, and Adrigole, saving a meagre €28,000. While the Government did all it could to backpedal on this highly dangerous decision for rural communities, the Garda station in Ballinspittle, for which I fought vigorously, was the only one reopened in west Cork. This was hugely important to the people of Ballinspittle, Ballinadee and Kinsale and was a great support to the excellent community garda, John McCarthy, in Kilbrittain. Has the Minister any plans to reverse the closure of other Garda stations in west Cork and to appoint a local garda in each of those stations? What plans has the Department for the Garda stations it will not reopen? Why can they not be handed back to the communities, rather than letting them fall into disrepair which adds to the shameful decisions to close them?
I understand that this next issue does not fall under the Minister's Department but it should, as our young people cannot get on with their lives while they are denied a driving test. It is totally unfair to them and to the driving test instructors who want to work in a safe manner but have no idea when, where or how to do so. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Shane Ross, has slammed the door shut and run off with the keys, leaving many unanswered questions. Can the Minister shed any light on a growing crisis which I am worried could force young people to break the law?
Gardaí in west Cork have worked tirelessly throughout this Covid crisis trying to get the message across and keeping people safe. Their job is being made difficult by having to police businesses that put a few tables and chairs outside a premises in a safe, socially-distanced way. For many people, this is their business's only chance of survival. While I urge the Minister to make sure the law is being enforced, where proper social distancing is being carried out by these businesses in west Cork they should be encouraged and not be made to remove their seating.
On the State hiring 210 additional vehicles for gardaí during the Covid crisis, how much has this cost the State and how many of these cars were allocated to west Cork, which is geographically one of the biggest Garda divisions in Ireland? I may be wrong but I can only see a couple. Where did the other 208 go?
Community policing can only work well when there is a good community alert group in place. I thank all the community alert and neighbourhood watch groups in west Cork and throughout the country that work tirelessly for the community in a voluntary capacity.
I refer to the direct provision centre in Miltown Malbay, which has been mentioned already. The Minister's response was that he will not rush to judgment, among other things. I ask him, however, to rush to inspection in view of the complaints Deputies have received. I have pictures and detailed accounts which I am not going to go into, but he should certainly rush to inspection because that would be appropriate at this point. Miltown Malbay has been very good in its welcoming of asylum seekers and they have a very positive relationship with the town. However, there are 12 residents in a centre that appears not to have been inspected and it appears somebody is in charge who is not competent to be so. There are many questions about the appropriateness of this situation. We are not complying with our obligations under international law.
We are not complying with our obligations under an EU directive which obliges us to carry out a vulnerability assessment. I mentioned when I was a member of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality that not a single vulnerability assessment had been carried out. My colleague, Deputy Pringle, has written to the Minister. I will write to him, as I am sure will many other Deputies.
On community policing, the price of democracy is eternal vigilance. In that context, the report from the Policing Authority is vital because it is the monitoring body. I say well done to the Minister for ensuring that happened, although I am sure it could have done it of its own accord and he might clarify that if he gets a chance. It has provided a very precise and succinct report. It certainly gives praise to gardaí, which is well deserved and reflects my experience of them.
The report does, however, highlight a number of issues that the Minister failed to highlight, such as the failure to give a breakdown of the five powers. I cannot go into them because of the time limits, but they include the power of arrest, the power to give directions and so on. The report states that it would have wished in particular to identify those occasions when a garda directed a person and that direction was complied with, but it cannot report on the exercise of the power as it would have wished because the necessary information was not available and so on. The Policing Authority stated that it found it very difficult to understand why it is not possible to indicate which of the powers was invoked on each occasion. It then went on to talk about the importance of recording ethnicity and gives reasons for that. It also referred to the use of spit hoods and provided data on that. They are the important outstanding issues.
The Minister mentioned that gardaí are not armed, but there are armed gardaí at checkpoints and the Policing Authority commented on this in terms of impact and perception. There are reasons for the presence of armed gardaí, such as being involved in an operation, reassigned or so on. They are present and there are issues with that.
It is extraordinary that it has taken the Morris, O'Higgins, Charleton and I do not know how many other tribunals to investigate policing. The Charleton tribunal cost €70 million to come around in a circle and tell us that we need gardaí to be visible, honest, polite, take pride in their work in uniform, serve the people of Ireland and treat their obligation to the public as superior to any false sense that individual policemen and policewomen should stick together. It referred to self analysis. It should not be necessary to have a Morris tribunal or an O'Higgins and so on. What has been missing in the past is the fact that the command structure of An Garda Síochána failed to call itself to account. To be fair to gardaí, those points could apply to any of us as public servants. We would be wise to take them into account. In that context it is vital that the information sought by the Policing Authority be given to it.
It seems to me that the Garda is in an impossible position when it comes to protests. I have the greatest respect for gardaí and feel much safer with them on the streets. They were subjected to an appalling situation in Salthill last week, where young people were out of control. Perhaps if the situation had been anticipated better by management on the previous day it would have been good, but I pay tribute to the behaviour of the gardaí.
As I understand it, the gardaí at the Black Lives Matter protest were very good and worked with the protestors. I have no idea why an investigation is taking place. Protest is fundamental to society and it is fundamental that we would express our outrage at what has happened in America. It is a human response. Clearly, it has to be done in compliance with the guidelines. I ask the Minister to look at that so that protests are allowed with social distancing.
I very much endorse what Deputy Connolly has just said with regard to An Garda Síochána, both the good and the bad. One of the things all of these tribunals have taught us is that nobody is above reproach and accountability. A historical incident in Bunratty, County Clare, involves the Nugent family who deserve justice and to know what happened to their brother. Their father went to his grave looking for justice and did not get it. Until they get justice, there will always be a cloud over An Garda Síochána and the role it played on that night.
Another incident took place in Miltown Malbay. It pains me, to an extent, to hear about what is going on there. I recall when the direct provision centre was set up there.
The Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, were looking for venues to host direct provision centres. While it might come as a surprise to the Minister and others in the House, the welcome that was rolled out by people in Miltown Malbay did not come as a surprise to me because that is part of the traditional welcome we afford to a stranger in Ireland.
Snámhaí Sásta in particular was highlighted. It is a great initiative where a community comes together to go swimming come hail, rain or snow - literally. People from outside were brought into that and were part of it. It is very much part of mental health. We need to bear in mind, as Deputy Connolly pointed out earlier, many people who come here and claim asylum are fleeing persecution and have various sufferings. They have been subjected to treatment that Irish people were once treated to in this country. We celebrate our independence, but we must remember the cost of it and what provoked the War of Independence and what we were subjected to as a people when we decide how we will treat other people.
The welcome that the people of Miltown Malbay rolled out is something I have experienced as a person in other countries, particularly in Muslim countries where the treatment of the stranger is part of the honour of a society. We talk a lot about racism and that black lives matter, and of course they do. We need to be ever-vigilant for racism in Ireland. We also need to look at xenophobia and vilifying Islam. We need to be very cautious in that regard.
Going back to the welcome the people of Miltown Malbay rolled out, unfortunately, that is not mirrored in our direct provision centres which are about ensuring that people are not welcome. There is an unwritten rule that single males, in particular, get moved out of Dublin and other cities to places like Oranmore, Miltown Malbay, etc. The last thing the Department of Justice and Equality wants is for these people to integrate, get a job and, heaven forbid, get involved with somebody, form a family and have a child because, of course, it makes it more difficult to deport them if they are part of a family unit. Family inheres in us as human beings. Everybody in this House is part of a family. That is the nature of humanity the world over; from Miltown Malbay to Ulaanbaatar we organise ourselves as families. The reason these single males are being sent out to these areas is so that they cannot and will not do that while the system plods along.
I acknowledge that there have been advances, particularly with regard to determining whether refugee status, subsidiary protection status or humanitarian leave to remain is warranted and the process has speeded up. The quality of decision-making, as evidenced by the number of successful judicial reviews taken against the various tribunals, has improved considerably. However, we have more to do. I do not think that our system of direct provision reflects the Irish spirit. It does not welcome people. It tries to keep them apart and that is not who we are as a people.
I ask the Minister to act quickly in respect of Miltown Malbay. I do not know what the truth is of the allegations that have been made and I do not want to prejudge anything. I ask him to act quickly because the local people have given a great welcome to these people. There have been all sorts of allegations made, including about running water. Nobody in Miltown Malbay has running water today. Every second week the water system breaks down. That is not unique to the hostel in Miltown Malbay.
I ask the Minister to look into this issue as a matter of urgency and report back because the people of Miltown Malbay deserve better than to be spoken of in the way that they have been in the Chamber tonight.